The key words that jump out at you from ‘The Age of Unreason’ are ‘change,’ ‘discontinuity’, ‘upside down thinking’ and ‘uncertainty’. The changes of the last twenty years have been immense and have challenged our comfortable perceptions of the world. Handy identifies how organisations and individuals must learn to cope with shifting work patterns. The book flows from argument to analysis and through theory to practical examples of how the future, as Handy sees it, might work. This book could have been written today and still have currency and relevance as a roadmap for an uncertain future.
‘The Age of Unreason’ might be open to criticism as a Utopian vision of how dynamic and adaptable members of society cope with discontinuous change that quantum leaps in technology have forced upon us. Those who have embraced lifetime learning and surely most MBAs will fall into this category, are intelligent and can draw on their own resources to succeed in disruptive times. How the less advantaged will prosper or even survive is not as clear, although the author does sound warnings about creating a divisive society.
When Handy was originally outlining his vision of flexible, entrepreneurial workers, the layperson had not heard of the Internet, mobile phones weighed in at around a kilo and the world of work would still have been recognisable to our grandparents. Now, with the ubiquitous Web, fast telecommunications links and a rapidly changing attitude to working practices, his vision is reality. Many now have what Handy calls portfolio careers. I am writing this from my home where broadband communication has allowed me to manage my bank account, advertise my services as a consultant and view the sad remnants of my stock portfolio with little effort. His vision of the ‘shamrock organisation’, consisting of an expert core serviced by outside organisations and part time contractors, has come true and technology has made it possible.
In Handy’s opinion, few of us now working will end our careers with a gold watch after forty years unbroken service with a single employer. The three parts of the book are titled; Changing, Working, Living. It is through combining these that we reach a fulfilling balance where a portfolio career is complemented by portfolio compensation, measured in self-fulfilment as well as financial reward. Handy’s innovative approach or upside down thinking as he calls it, also extends to education. His views are radical. Schools would have individual contracts with students to provide a core service. There would then be an area of discretion or specialisation, where the student could pick a range of options.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and therefore reviewing this work thirteen years after its publication has allowed a privileged view. One thing impresses and must be emphasised. Handy’s journey is one he personally has undertaken. Once you have finished ‘The Age of Unreason’, reflect on the lessons learnt, then read ‘The Elephant and the Flea,’ (2001), where he describes how the independent life has worked for him. This is more of a reflective and philosophical work, than ‘The Age of Unreason’ but the two can be seen as milestones in a rich and varied life. Handy succeeds in painting an appealing picture of the future where many could work from home using our talents to their full and diverse potential. Read ‘The Age of Unreason’ and imagine how Handy’s vision could work for you. Have any of us not dreamed of waking in the morning and commuting an undemanding 10 yards down the corridor to our home office? Now, where did I put my pinstriped dressing gown?